The Thin Red Line: Reviewing the book Beyond Imperial Aesthetics

Beyond Imperial Aesthetics: Theories of Art and Politics in East Asia
Edited by Mayumo Inoue and Steve Choe, HKU Press, 2019.

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Released while Hong Kong is still in crisis and at the moment of the advent of the Reiwa era in Japan, Beyond Imperial Aesthetics brings together academic essays, largely from the Asian American community, with texts by scholars from Korea, Japan and Taiwan completing the set. Guess who is missing. Divided into four parts, the themes deal with theory boundaries between Asia and Europe, love, bodies and sexuality in Eastern Asia, critical aesthetics and their links to social movements, and finally the move from biopolitical spaces to affect communities. Along the way the reader will encounter familiar names such as Akira Mizuta Lippit and Rey Chow.

For those exploring Asian cinemas, video and media art, the book provides a rigorous socio-political context while making sure to correct historical inaccuracies, allowing for a reading of films that moves beyond simply that of genres (Yangyu Zhang looks more closely at the essay on Hong Kong New Wave). Numerous works addressing such issues still need to be translated, notably from English to French, as they decrypt what stands for a postcolonial practice, at a time when part of Asia still looks at American and British degrees as badges of social legitimacy, or faced with a dream of decolonization when confronting an ongoing American military presence, such as the one challenged by Okinawa’s senior citizens (an island twice occupied) who continue to be forcibly removed by Japanese police.

Nonetheless, at the heart of the book’s theoretical apparatus is French ‘théorie’ produced by the master thinkers between 1960 & 1980 (Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan…) alongside more contemporary figures such as Judith Butler and Achille Mbembe, and because he is necessary everywhere,  Jean-Luc Nancy. The book does not manage to distance itself from this ‘imperialist’ academia, the editors suggesting in their introduction that perhaps the moment is not suited to this, as such a model continues to reveal a number of errors whose consequences might have weakened creative Asian production ( visual arts, cinema, literature) by taking America and Europe too closely at their word.

France has engaged in a complex proximity with Asian film productions, not only from Japan, by far its most important interlocutor since the nineteen fifties, but also Taiwan and Hong Kong New Waves, as well as directors from China’s fifth and sixth generations. Beyond Imperial Aesthetics is a call for territories such as France to really take up Contemporary Asian Studies.


My Body, My Heat

Review of “Corpo-reality in the Hong Kong New Wave”

In the article Corpo-reality in the Hong Kong New Wave, Chang-Min Yu looks at the trend of Hong Kong filmmaking after 1968 and argues that “the corporeal cinema retains the body, dissecting its narrative function and burrowing into its sensual manifestations”, as well as acknowledges “the inscription of social forces on our identity”.

Against the formalist and philosophical fashion in modernist cinema, Yu calls for first bringing the body back to its physical layer, taking the cinematic somatization literally. Given the preceding Hong Kong cinema significantly informed by the horror and porno movies in addition to the kung-fu ones, the physicality is indeed worth noticing in the bleeding, the cut-off limb, the opened-up stomach, the grafting or transfiguration of the animal’s body, and so on. This literal body, for Yu, doesn’t stop at the sensual level, rather alludes to the social anxiety from identity crisis to immigrant issues.

To establish Hong Kong cinema’s own ground strategically outside the shadow of the European New Waves, especially the French Nouvelle Vague, the author blames the latter for “the fundamental ignorance of the body and the Hong Kong New Wave”. There is certainly urgency in seeing through the Eurocentric glasses and further beyond the consequent postcolonial narrative as the only legitimate one, it is nonetheless arbitrary to assert that the modernist approach as a whole “prioritizes form over content, discourse over story, and mind over body”. Yu sees the political modernism in Godard’s work which, he claims, “eliminated the character and its somatic basis”; but he seems to have overlooked the body radiating sexuality and vitality in Godard’s other films, such as Macha Méril in Une Femme Mariee, Anna Karina’s screaming sensuality in Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou, as well as every shot of Juliet Berto in La Chinoise.

Indeed, instead of neglecting the body, the French New Wave on the contrary highlights the body’s dynamics and vitality, when it’s roaming in the city or running across the screen, or body parts making gentle and sensual moves. As to the Hong Kong cinema depicted by Yu, what it explores is more of the abject or spectacular body—the spectacular corporeality. In his examples, the body or body parts are often passively being sawn, spit open, pulled apart, pierced through, enduring the pain and humiliation and bearing the burden. This body enters the realm of bloody viscera and mutilation and inevitably moves away from the perfect or ideal image. It is this abject aesthetics that characterizes the Hong Kong cinema of that period, at least the one marked out by Yu.



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